Giordano Bruno: a Martyr for Science

Giordano Bruno
A monument to Giordano Bruno in the Campo de Fiori in Rome. It stands near where he was executed. Daryl Mitchell, via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0

Science and religion found themselves at odds in the life of Giordano Bruno, an Italian scientist and philosopher. He taught many ideas that the church of his time didn't like or agree with, with unfortunate consequences for Bruno. Ultimately, he was tortured during the Inquisition for his defense of a universe where planets orbit their stars. For that, he paid with his life. This man defended the scientific precepts he taught at the expense of his own safety and sanity.

His experience is a lesson to all who seek to discredit the very sciences that help us learn about the universe. 

The Life and Times of Giordano Bruno

Filippo (Giordano) Bruno was born in Nola, Italy in 1548. His father was Giovanni Bruno, a soldier, and his mother was Fraulissa Savolino. In 1561, he enrolled in school at the Monastery of Saint Domenico, best known for its famous member, Thomas Aquinas. Around this time, he took the name Giordano Bruno and within a few years had become a priest of the Dominican Order.

Giordano Bruno was a brilliant, if eccentric, philosopher. The life of a Dominican priest in the Catholic Church apparently didn't suit him, so he left the order in 1576 and wandered Europe as a traveling philosopher, lecturing in various universities. His chief claim to fame was the Dominican memory techniques he taught, bringing him to the attention of royalty. This included King Henry III of France and Elizabeth I of England.

They wanted to learn the tricks he could teach. His memory enhancement techniques, described in his book The Art of Memory, are still used today.

Crossing Swords with the Church

Bruno was a pretty outspoken guy, and not well-appreciated while he was in the Dominican Order. However, his troubles truly began around 1584 when he published his book Dell Infinito, universo e mondi (Of Infinity, the Universe, and the World).

Since he was known as a philosopher and not an astronomer, Giordano Bruno might not have merited much attention if he hadn't written this book. However, it eventually came to the attention of the church, which took a dim view of his interpretation of some new scientific ideas he'd heard about from the astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus.Copernicus wrote the book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). In it, he laid out the idea of a Sun-centered solar system with the planets orbiting around it. This was a revolutionary idea and his other observations about the nature of the universe sent Bruno into a veritable frenzy of philosophical thought. 

If the Earth was not the center of the universe, Bruno reasoned, and all those stars clearly seen in the night sky were also suns, then there must exist an infinite number of​ "earths" in the universe. And, they could be inhabited by other beings like ourselves. It was an exciting thought and opened up new avenues of speculation. However, that was exactly what the church didn't want to see. Bruno's ruminations about the Copernican universe were considered to be against the word of God. Catholic elders taught officially that the Sun-centered universe was "truth", based on teachings by the Greek/Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemy.

They had to do something about this heretical upstart before his ideas became more widely accepted. So, Church officials lured Giordano Bruno to Rome with the promise of a job. Once he arrived, Bruno was arrested and immediately turned over to the Inquisition to be charged with heresy.

Bruno spent the next eight years in chains in Castel Sant’Angelo, not far from the Vatican. He was routinely tortured and interrogated. This continued until his trial. Despite his predicament, Bruno remained true to what he knew, stating to his Catholic Church judge, Jesuit Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, "I neither ought to recant nor will I." Even the death sentence handed down to him did not change his attitude as he defiantly told his accusers, "In pronouncing my sentence, your fear is greater than mine in hearing it."

Immediately after the death sentence was handed down, Giordano Bruno was further tortured. On February 19, 1600, he was driven through the streets of Rome, stripped of his clothes and burned at the stake. Today, a monument stands in the Campo de Fiori in Rome, with a statue of Bruno, honoring a man who knew science to be true and refused to let religious dogma change the facts.

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen